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Capability and Responsibility: Philanthropy as Relationship

November 30, 2020
Hilary Pearson

I’m still thinking about some of the deep conversations that are going on in philanthropy today around “shifting” power. To me the word “shift” assumes a transfer of something from A to B. As I wrote in my last blog on this topic, I don’t see power as fixed, to be had only by one and not by another. Nor is power just about money. It’s about networks, and knowledge and access. Money, networks and knowledge don’t have to be thought of as fixed reserves but as currencies. Currency is a word that derives from the Latin “to run” or “flow”, which takes me to relationships. Perhaps, instead of focusing on shifting, our conversation about power in philanthropy can be more illuminating when we talk about being in flow, or in relationship.

I have come across some terrific reflections on the question of relationship in philanthropy this past month. Whether on the blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, or listening to the excellent Giving Done Right podcast from Phil Buchanan and Grace Nicolette, or the panel discussions at the November Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) conference, these reflections have emphasized relationship, even if it wasn’t the first word uttered.

The conversation has highlighted two aspects of relationship: capability and accountability. A mutually satisfying relationship is one in which the capabilities of participants are developed and deployed in ways that bring value to the relationship itself. Such a mutually satisfying relationship also features reciprocal accountability. Each participant recognizes their accountability to the other, both in the sense of honesty and trust and in the sense of being accountable for the purposes of the relationship. The deeper conversation is about how these capabilities and accountabilities can be fully explored by funders and partners. The phrase used by Senator Ratna Omidvar in her PFC conference plenary to describe her goal for charities is that they feel both “empowered and responsible”. How can we as funders and community partners achieve relationships in which that is possible?

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has been studying the responses of US foundations to the pandemic emergency. Their data is telling them that “the crises of 2020 have catalyzed foundation leaders to reconsider their choices about how they conduct their work.” I understand that Canadian data being collected by PFC and others is telling the same story. Part of the reconsideration is how to rebalance their relationships with grantees who are suffering great stress on their capabilities. So, foundations are loosening restrictions, granting with few or no conditions, reducing reporting requirements and listening to what grantees are telling them about their circumstances and needs. These changes are working, at least in the short term, to empower community partners and to reinforce trust in the relationship.

Pushing further, some foundations in Canada are participating in an exploration of how to build “sustained, trusting and collaborative” relationships with grantees. The Foundation Academy for Collaboration, catalyzed by the Saputo Foundation and convened by Ashoka Canada and PFC, is bringing together funders and social innovators to figure out collaborative strategy together. The Foundation Academy participants spoke about their experience in working together during the PFC conference. One of the insights from their first report speaks to the heart of relationship: “we need to show up differently, prioritize building trusting and sustained relationships with one another, create alignment around a shared purpose (without being prescriptive or wedded to predetermined solutions)”. The emphasis is on purpose not power.

Of course, to be able to build relationship, we come back to the fundamentals of capability. Capability is the means to achieve purpose. Organizations dedicated to social justice and to making systemic change are often limited in their capabilities. Recognizing this, in 2015 the Ford Foundation made a 6-year $1 billion commitment to building institutions and networks (BUILD). The three aspects of a BUILD grant—long-term commitment, flexible funding, and institutional strengthening support—work together to help BUILD grantees be stronger, more resilient, and more effective. BUILD’s interim evaluation report of this year has many useful lessons already for funders who want to work on supporting capability to engage.  During the PFC conference, some of these lessons were shared in a conversation between Kathy Reich the leader of BUILD and Jean-Marc Chouinard of the Lucie et Andre Chagnon Foundation.  Jean-Marc Chouinard put his finger on something that is important for funders to consider. It’s not only about helping build the capability of your partners but also about developing your own internal capabilities as a funder: for listening, for flexibility and responsiveness, for expressing your values coherently in organizational structure and behaviours. If your values are inclusion and transparency and trust and respect, the fundamentals of any good relationship, this must be reflected in all of your behaviours as a funder.

And what about responsibility? This is as integral to relationship as capability, in my view. It means taking responsibility for the mutual setting of purposes and goals together, not at arms-length. And it means joint monitoring and shared responsibility for the outcome of evaluation. Finally, it also means being responsible for more listening and more feedback from both sides. Melinda Tuan, the leader of the Fund for Shared Insight, in her discussion on the Giving Done Right podcast, talks about the importance to funders and organizations alike of getting feedback and of asking questions about what really matters to people. One of the projects of the Fund for Shared Insight is Listen4Good. At the core of this effort is getting feedback from the people most affected on the things that matter most to them. And funders can help build capability for this feedback as well as using it themselves. The Center for Effective Philanthropy, Ford, Chagnon, Ashoka Canada, PFC and many others in philanthropy are providing insights and tools to engage funders and organizations working in the community in deeper relationship. These conversations help philanthropy in the tough task we have to keep the current flowing, to stay in relationship and to help get through a time of crisis for us all.

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